The World Social Forum (WSF) is a civil society initiative founded in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2001 as an alternative space to the World Economic Forum, in which global economic elites convene annually in Davos, Switzerland to determine the direction of the global economy. In contrast to World Economic Forum, the WSF promotes a “democratic, plural meeting of resistance with the objective of encouraging debates, deeper collective reflection, an exchange of experiences, and the building of coalitions and networks between organized civil society movements and community organizations that oppose neoliberalism and the domination of world by capital.”
This year’s meeting, the 13th in the Forum’s history, took place in Salvador, Brazil between March 13 and17, bringing together an estimated 60,000 people from 120 countries. Many events by Rio de Janeiro civil society organizers including favela-based leaders were hosted at the event. With the motto “Resisting is creating, resisting is transforming!”, activities at the forum covered a range of topics including the movement against mental asylums, homeless populations, the fight against racism, challenges to the current economic framework, rights to the city and to housing, freedom of the press, youth, and solidarity economies, among others.
In a city where more than 75% of the population is black, the Forum reflected this diversity not only with the large number of black participants but with the significant number of events hosting discussions about race and reaffirming that “Black Lives Matter.” This was even one of the Forum’s principal themes, as proposed by civil society through a public consultation process held by the orgazniers. On this topic, Raull Santiago, activist from Complexo do Alemão and member of both favela media collective Coletivo Papo Reto and the group Movimentos, wrote:
“Wow, on the plane there were five people in the struggle who are favela residents. Plus, several beautiful afros. Many others with turbans and dreads. Various kinds of greetings and handshakes, along with slang!!!
Man, the most of-the-people plane ride I’ve ever taken! Of course, it could only be heading to Salvador!
Get ready, the World Social Forum (WSF) is going to be hot!!!!”
The Opening March on March 13 saw thousands of people follow a four kilometer path to Castro Alves Square, also known as “The People’s Square,” which has been the stage of major protests and resistance acts in Bahia State. On March 14 there was a discussion featuring activists from peripheral areas all across Brazil on the subject of favela literature and its contribution to healthy territories. There was also a debate titled, “War on Drugs, Genocide of Black Youth, and Mass Incarceration,” organized by the Federal Council for Psychology. This talk addressed how the war on drugs is used as a legal justification for violence in the peripheries and how marginalized communities must be seen not as objects of politics but as subjects with rights. The Court against Evictions also took place, judging five cases of removals in Brazil.
On the same day, the “Popular Housing: Occupations, Housing Projects” activity reflected on the experiences of five urban housing occupations in downtown Rio de Janeiro (Casarão Azul, Zumbi dos Palmares, Flor do Asfalto, Machado de Assis, and Quilombo das Guerreiras). Researchers and activists involved in the project reject the term “revitalization,” as the City described activities in the Port Zone during the Olympic period. “How can you revitalize a space which is already so full of life and history?” questioned Roberto Santos, a project member from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). “Innumerable homes were removed with a refined cruelty on the part of the City, to put in their place an aesthetically attractive wall,” said Federal Fluminense University (UFF) professor and project member Rolf Malungo de Souza, referring to the mural on the Olympic Boulevard and the removal of Casarão Azul occupants. According to project members, this “revitalization” project involves a symbolic and idealogical dispute in addition to the economic elements.
The programming, however, was abruptly interrupted due to the brutal murder of Rio City Council member Marielle Franco and her driver Anderson Pedro Gomes. On Thursday morning, a protest led by members of the National Movement for the Fight for Housing (MNLM) marched across the campus of the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA), growing in size as people left the forum activities to join in the demonstration. The protest moved into the streets of Salvador, with speeches in tribute to Franco emphasizing the symbolism of her fight—and her death—for the black population, especially black women, who face a crisis of political representation in addition to daily oppression.
One activity that did not take place as a result of the news was a workshop that would have been lead by the Movimentos group, titled “Drugs, youth, and favelas.” On a post on his Facebook page, Raull Santiago explained:
“Given the gravity of the event, of what’s happening in Rio de Janeiro, we are not in a state to continue with the workshop, and we need to organize several things, on top of what we’ve been doing since then, meeting, organizing various responses.”
Some event programming restarted later in the afternoon that day. The Piratininga Communication Nucleus (NPC) engaged in discussion on the free press with the launch of the “Popular Communications Web,” conceived of in 2003 when four youth were murdered by the police in the Borel favela in Rio de Janeiro. A post about the event on the NPC’s Facebook page said:
“In the name of Marielle, a black female favela resident, we will find the courage and, as [cartoonist and writer] Henfil taught us, find the glimmer of hope on the horizon. Today we find hope in the Popular Communications Web.”
The day culminated with the “In Defense of Democracy” protest, which featured former president Lula and Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB) pre-candidate Manuela D’Ávila. Multiple tributes were paid to Marielle Franco throughout the event: “The fascists who killed Marielle do not realize they only took her flesh. Her liberating ideas and her defense of human rights are so much stronger today than when she was going it alone in Rio de Janeiro,” said the ex-president.
On March 16, there was some hesitation about going ahead with the session on “Black Youth in Debate: Genocide, Drugs Policies, and Collective Security Strategies,” owing to the seriousness of the situation and the difficulty for speakers to get organized after the tragedy. Coletivo Papo Reto and Movimentos members had already returned to Rio, but Priscila Rodrigues from the Favelas Observatory and Thais de Jesus from the Maré Development Networks represented Rio de Janeiro in this important panel. The discussion was organized by the Permanent Forum for Racial Equality (FOPIR) and also featured Odara—Institute of the Black Woman.
Priscila Rodrigues began her speech by remembering how Marielle Franco always greeted her with the phrase, “what’s up, negona?” using a slang term of endearment for a black woman. “She wanted to listen to us and wanted every black woman to speak. That’s why we’re here speaking today, to push forward with our goals,” she said. She also stressed the importance of community media and photography projects aimed at residents to help construct other narratives about favelas—narratives focused on their potential and which are not based on outsiders’ view of the favela which “has always sought out pain, suffering.” Thais de Jesus, in turn, presented the mechanisms that the Maré Development Networks organization uses to monitor police activities and their effects on the public debate. De Jesus also joined with a resident of Nordeste de Amaralina, a favela in Salvador which has high levels of police violence, to share a mutual conclusion: “we have to denounce the State, not police X or Y for a single action.”
Following the testimonies of young black people from different parts of the country, discussion participants questioned whether drug trafficking is really the biggest public security problem. They questioned modes of considering the genocide of black youth only in terms of public security, while the black women’s movement has made efforts to expand the conversation to the full breadth it requires, involving health, reproductive rights, and espistemicide (a term coined by Sueli Carneiro to speak about the lack of black subjectivity and knowledge in what is considered academic literature).
The debate also involved audience participation from Rio-based organizations to inspire initiatives elsewhere in Brazil. Vitor Mihessen from Casa Fluminense spoke about the organization’s experience working towards territorialized indicators for the whole Rio metropolis and producing maps on inequality. Fabio Silva from Data_Labe talked about tools that can be used for disputing official narratives and constructing other narratives from data. “For the media, a police operation in the favela is the seizure of drugs and traffic on [major highway] Avenida Brasil; for us, it’s deaths and days of missed classes,” he said, alluding to the data presented by Thais de Jesus to show how, when they leave school, children in Maré are a year behind other school children because they lose an average of 35 days of school per year due to classes being canceled on days with police operations.
Finally, also on March 16, participants celebrated the National Day for the Theater of the Oppressed, with activities aimed at discussing the strengthening of citizenship and social justice through theater. These activities also honored Marielle Franco.